Northern Iowa (0-0) at (22) Iowa (0-0)
Saturday, September 5th, 12:05 p.m. (et)
From The Sports Network
By Ralph Lauro, Associate College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: The 22nd-ranked Iowa Hawkeyes will try to pick up right where they left off from a season ago, as they open their 2009 campaign against the Northern Iowa Panthers at Kinnick Stadium this weekend.
The Hawkeyes came out of the gate quickly with three straight wins to open the 2008 season, but were just as quickly brought back to reality with a three- game slide. The team though, showed its resiliency and bounced back by winning six of their final seven games, including a big upset of undefeated Penn State. The program capped the season with a 31-10 trouncing of South Carolina in the Outback Bowl, finishing 9-4 overall. It marked the team's most wins since 2004 and head coach Kirk Ferentz should have Iowa competing for another successful campaign in 2009 thanks to the return of several key players.
As for the Panthers, they are a member of the FCS, but don't expect them to be intimidated in this one. UNI has been one of the most successful teams at its level over the last several years and the program is expected to compete for a national championship once again this season. In 2008, Mark Farley's group earned a share of the Missouri Valley Conference title and finished the campaign with a 12-3 ledger. The Panthers even advanced to the national semifinals, while finishing No.4 in both national polls at season's end. UNI has certainly built a reputation for itself under Farley and it won't go quietly this weekend.
"I think they're very good," Farley said of the Hawkeyes. "But so are we."
The Panthers though, are just 1-13 all-time against Iowa, picking up their lone victory in the first meeting all the way back in 1898. The teams last clashed in 2005, a 45-21 triumph by the Hawkeyes.
Among the nine returning starter on offense for UNI is quarterback Pat Grace, who showed he could do it all in 2008. Not only did Grace throw for over 2,000 yards and 14 scores, but he also rushed for 618 yards and 11 more touchdowns.
With one of the better and more experienced wide receiver corps at his disposal, Grace should be able to improve on those numbers in his final go around. Josh Collins highlights the wideouts and he paced the team with 32 catches and 502 yards in his first full season in 2008.
At tailback, Derrick Law is now set to take over following the departure of Corey Lewis, UNI's all-time leading rusher. He will have big shoes to fill, but when give the chance last season, Law proved he could be effective, rushing for 786 yards and nine scores.
"I've seen with my own eyes (some of) the great running backs who've come through here," said Law. "I've learned from their mistakes and what they did great and tried to put that into my game."
The Panthers return five starters from a defense that limited opponents to just 309.7 total ypg and forced a whopping 40 turnovers in 2008. The line returns nearly intact and is highlighted by end James Ruffin, MVC's Defensive Player of the Year in 2008. A First-Team All-American candidate, Ruffin proved difficult to block last season, notching 10 sacks and 18 TFLs.
There is no drop off at linebacker either, as both Josh Mahoney and Jamar Thompson are welcomed back after spectacular showings in 2008. Mahoney registered a team-high 139 stop and three picks last season, while Thompson added 110 tackle and four interceptions.
In the secondary is where UNI has issues, with no starters welcomed back. The team will count on some younger players to step up here and prevent offenses from exploiting them with deep passes.
Shonn Greene became the first Iowa running back to win the Doak Walker Award in 2008, rushing for 1,850 yards and 20 touchdowns, and his departure leaves a big hole to fill.
"It will be tough to replace Shonn, but it will be exciting because all of the guys on offense have to raise our level of play to make up for his absence," said tight end Tony Moeaki.
After rushing for 463 yards and seven touchdowns as a freshman last year, Jewel Hampton was slated to take over for Greene, but he is out for an undetermined period of time with a knee injury. Junior Paki O'Meara, instead, will move into a starting role for the first time in his career and he will be backed up by redshirt freshman Adam Robinson.
The key to this year's offense however, is quarterback Ricky Stanzi. The junior gunslinger got off to a shaky start last year, but got better as the season wore on and finished with just under 2,000 passing yards and 14 scores. He had some issues with turnovers, so that is an area the team will look for him to improve on in 2009.
Stanzi will have a solid group of wideouts to work with and junior Derrell Johnson-Koulianos is the best of the bunch. In 2008, Johnson-Koulianos led the team with 44 catches and 639 receiving yards and he figures to be one of Stanzi's favorite targets once again.
"Rick has transitioned into one of the greatest leaders I've ever been around," Johnson-Koulianos said. "He has made a point to make sure that he prepared himself like no one ever has. It's inspiring, it's motivating and it's contagious. We're going to follow his lead -- he's set a great example for all of us."
The offensive line returns three starters and plenty of experience, so expect Stanzi to have time to pick apart opposing defenses.
Defensively, the Hawkeyes should be stout once again, as eight starters return from a unit that allowed a mere 13.0 ppg to rank nationally in that department in 2008. The biggest concern for this group comes up front, where Iowa lost a pair of stout tackles in Mitch King and Matt Kroul. However, ends Adrian Clayborn (50 tackles) and Christian Ballard (40 stops) do return and the team is hoping they can develop into better pass rushers and help the club improve on its mere 19 sacks from a season ago.
"We want to be even more of an impact on the field," Clayborn said. "Get those sacks up. We have to get to the quarterback more."
At linebacker, the Hawkeyes have no issues, as all three starters, led by Pat Angerer, who posted a team-high 107 tackles and five interceptions last year.
The secondary also welcomes back three starters, with Amari Spievey leading the way. Academically ineligible in 2007, Spievey developed into a premier shutdown corner last season and finished with 68 stops and four picks.
Iowa is expected to be a Top 25 team all season long and for good reason. The Hawkeyes have balance on both sides of the ball and should be able to push their way past UNI. Still, the Panthers could hang around for a little bit considering they are talented in their own right. In the end, though, it will be Iowa with a decisive victory.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Iowa 38, Northern Iowa 10
09/02 10:32:23 ET